Striving to Fail: From STEM Club to National Award Winners

Amanda Prescott and Emily Langton, teachers at Owings Mills Elementary in Baltimore County, Maryland, share how they integrated PLTW Launch (PreK-5) STEM curriculum into a before-school STEM Club. Amanda and Emily are recipients of the ITEEA TEEAM award of Program of Excellence in technology. They were honored locally in February 2022 and nationally at the ITEEA 2022 Conference in March 2022.

Amanda Prescott and Emily Langton were only working on a grant. They didn't expect to find an experience in failure or a program that had 3rd graders asking for more school.

Their school wanted to expand exposure to computer science and computer literacy when the teachers were first introduced to Project Lead The Way (PLTW) by their principal. “…our school wanted more computer science literacy and STEM exposure. Our students have special areas and content classes like social studies, health, and science, but we wanted more hands-on learning opportunities for STEM education.”

Owings Mills Elementary in Baltimore County, Maryland, was awarded $10,000 for two years to implement PLTW’s elementary STEM curriculum. The more the teachers learned about the program in the grant writing process, the more driven they were in their successful push to lead the effort and begin training.

Amanda and Emily attended PLTW Launch Teacher Training where they were part of a group of elementary teachers actually experiencing the PLTW curriculum they would teach. Each training is led by a teacher specialized in teaching PLTW’s activity-, project-, and problem-based approach. “The training was the most fun we've ever had. It was really cool to see how hands-on it was. We loved how we did the modules ourselves and made the cast that was the kindergarten module problem. We learned a lot about ourselves, as a team member working in a group, and as an individual. The same as the kids do in the curriculum.”

“We learned a lot about ourselves, as a team member working in a group, and as an individual. The same as the kids do in the curriculum.” – Emily Langton

Empowered by their new credential to teach, and with the support of their administration and network of peers, they could begin planning. With specific goals in mind, they set out tackling their first hurdle - they were the only two teachers trained at their school - how could they implement? “We weren't sure how we should start, so we decided to start small. We'd do it as a club, which was a new concept in our district. Our focus was getting girls involved. We wanted to be two girls leading it and wanted to get more girls interested. The minute we said STEM club, the boys were like, ‘Oh yeah, like robotics! Cool, coding, yeah!’ A lot of the girls were like, ‘What? What is that? STEM?.’”

To get more girls interested in STEM, they leveraged their homeroom roles to begin having conversations about what STEM was and showing the students what it could include. Word of mouth from those students helped their success in recruiting more girls into the club, and they now boast a 50/50 blend of boy and girl participants.

As a Title 1 school, a primary goal for their administration was to increase access to opportunities quality STEM curriculum provides. Aided by the school’s ability to distribute a device to every student, the teachers started out with the Programming Patterns module where students could experience coding firsthand. “It's been really cool to show the kids, ‘You like video games and playing them…let's make one and show all the coding and programming that goes into it.’ This way, we can give them those opportunities that they might've believed were out of their reach all this time. They see the streamers do these things, but now they can think, ‘How can I do that?’ Seeing the lights go on that they CAN do these things is pretty miraculous.”

Now with a steady interest from students in 3rd and 4th grades, the teachers were able to continue iterating on their original plan. “Now we're at the point where they're so engrossed in it, if something is a mistake, a bug within the program, they ask, ‘what did we do different?’ They're not coming to us for the answers, saying, ‘Ms. Prescott, I don't know what happened.’ It's how ‘can I best solve it?’ Or ‘what do I need to do next?’ Or ‘what can I do in the future for this?’”

Amanda and Emily were able to create a club where students were truly engaged in learning. The students felt comfortable exploring, tinkering, and figuring out how to solve problems. The program was so exciting for the students that 3rd graders were asking their parents to rearrange their schedules to get them to school early for their STEM Club with PLTW.

This excitement allowed the teachers to focus on another goal: failure. “There’s something we see, not just in our club, but in school and society in general. Kids do not like to fail. They do not like the idea of failure. We really want to show them, through this club, that they are going to fail. They are going to try things over and over. Something's not going to work. The idea that they have for their program is not going to go the way they think. And our message is ‘it is up to you to keep going. If you quit, feeling like this is too hard, then you're not going to grow from it.’ For example, we saw a big concern in the kids when they're taking a pre-assessment. If they don't know something, they freak out about it. ‘We haven't learned it yet!’ Through the activities we do in the club, we get them to understand that failure is just a part of success. Our club alumni always say what they've learned, ‘Yep, we're going to fail, and we're going to like it!’ They've also learned the perspective of, ‘I don't know it … yet.’ I remember one student last year at the end of a virtual session calling out to his mom, ‘Mom, we failed a LOT this morning. It was so fun!’”

“Mom, we failed a LOT this morning. It was so fun!” - Owings Mills Elementary Student

Amanda and Emily saw the progress their students were making and the effect their approach was having on the school. They elevated the club further by implementing a Coding Showcase, where the students could present their projects to teachers and administrators. They gave their students a prompt, to create a video game, and specific parameters. For example, students needed to make sure that they communicated their plan effectively and efficiently to those that would be playing the game. They needed to make sure that what they were thinking in their heads also made sense to the end user. Not only did they have to explain their game, but they were also expected to talk about the creation of their project to someone who isn’t familiar with coding. “To plan for constraints, like deadline, components for users' interactive choices, and other elements, we asked the kids ‘What would be your choices? What would be your characters? What would be the whole storyline?’ Before going to the app, we had them make an unplugged version, or a graphic organizer, of their story. This helped them see in review if they spent too much time on certain parts, if they had the right graphics, if they had alternative questions, and the right results. Emily and I were intentionally really hands-off about this. It was great for them to see, ‘I can do this. Wait. Okay. So, I switched and programmed my sprite to go here, and it did it.’ Some of the stuff they put in their projects, I had never done myself. They included things like motion sensors where if you move your hand a certain way, it's like you're throwing a ball to catch the ball. It's extreme and very cool.”

The teachers and leaders were impressed by what they saw at the showcase, and Amanda and Emily continue to be driven by what they saw along the way. “There is a multitude of skills the kids learned in this. The social piece is something big. With the interaction at this age, students learn patience with themselves and others. There's cooperation. ‘Hey, I wanted to do this, and you wanted to do that. Maybe we can compromise.’ And I know some of our kids have used that word this year, and it's pretty nice. Still, some wanted to raise their hand and ask us, ‘I don't know how to do this. How do I do that?’ And what we say now, is there somebody in the room that knows how to do that? Go, go find them, go talk to them about it. It's way more powerful coming from them than it is coming from either of us. Some kids who have been here the last two years are great at teaching the others how to do it. Some just call out, ‘Hey, does anyone know how to use motion capture?’ ‘Oh, I know how to use it.’ They talk through it together. We're there, but they are in the driver's seat. They are controlling it. They've gotten really good at believing in themselves. And when they don't know it, they're either problem solving and not giving up or they’re consulting someone else, like another peer, that might know how to do it. Their creativity has been huge too. They figured out how to do text-to-speech, which we had never done before. One of the video game characters was talking to me and I was like, ‘how did you do that? Every year it's something new, and it's really cool.’”

With the interaction at this age, students learn patience with themselves and others. – Amanda Prescott

Like all schools across the country, Owings Mills Elementary had to pivot and adapt during the COVID-19 pandemic. “During the pandemic's virtual learning, Emily and I had kids messaging us on Schoology every week. ‘When are we doing the club again?’ Not, ‘When are we coming back to school in-person,’ but ‘when are we doing the club again?’” In November 2020, they were able to reinstate the club virtually with the original group of 30 students, but their numbers quickly grew as word circulated that the club was back in action. When the club opened for in-person participation this year they had a total of 96 applicants!

So, what is next for STEM Club and the students at Owings Mills Elementary? “We want to get PLTW school wide. We see it integrating with the curriculum because there's so much in PLTW. It lends itself to so much, whether it's social studies, science, math, or reading, there's just so much involved in it that we'd love to, just like, match curriculums for each grade.” Amanda and Emily have completed PLTW Launch Teacher Training so that they can train teachers within their school. They have also expanded their club to include 5th graders and have encouraged the inclusion of a robotics club to better prepare them for middle school. “For some of our kids, this is their first time with coding or with robotics. Some of our girls have even said, ‘I thought this was stuff boys do.’ Even more so for our girls, we really want to make this a plausible option. If this is something they're interested in, if this is something that they envision, and it makes their soul happy, that this is something they want to do, then we want to meet them at all the areas.”

In the summer of 2021, Amanda and Emily were nominated ITEEA TEEAM award of Program of Excellence in technology. The award is considered one of the highest honors given to technology and engineering education programs at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. Their club won the Elementary Program of Excellence award and they were recognized locally at the TEEAM awards virtually on Feb. 25, 2022, and nationally at the ITEEA 2022 Conference in March.

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About the School

Owings Mills Elementary in Baltimore County, Maryland, is a Title 1 school whose student population is about 60-percent African American, 30-percent Hispanic, and 10-percent other ethnicities. A large population of their students are from low-income housing and receive free and reduced meals.

About the Teachers

Amanda Prescott is a Math Resource teacher at Owings Mills Elementary in Baltimore County. She’s taught elementary school for 10 years and has a master’s degree in Digital Leadership. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland with her husband and two dogs. Check out her posts on Twitter @PrescottOMES

Emily Langton is a 4th grade teacher at Owings Mills Elementary in Baltimore County. She’s taught elementary school for 9 years and has a master’s degree in STEM education. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland with her wife and daughter.

About PLTW

PLTW provides PreK-12 schools, teachers, and students with hands-on, interdisciplinary STEM-based curriculum that uniquely prepares students for life and their future careers.

PLTW rejuvenates teachers, providing world-class experiences that keep them on the forefront of how to prepare students for the demands of tomorrow. PLTW:

  • Has provided professional development opportunities to more than 80,000 teachers giving them the support and resources needed to inspire students
  • Offers best-in-class teacher training: PLTW Core Training with Master Teachers
  • Continuously updates teacher resources that are available on demand
  • Facilitates teacher networking opportunities
  • Develops curriculum by a team of writers, many of whom are former teachers

Learn more about PLTW on pltw.org